To Hon. Peter Akpatason Representing Akoko Edo Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives, Nigerians are not fair to the lawmakers over their outcry on the planned purchase of utility vehicles by the lawmakers saying buying it or not would not solve the country’s problem. In this interview with MATHEW DADIYA, he, however conceded that in the National Assembly, personal interest supersedes community and people’s interest while the level of administrative efficiency in the NASS is also very worrisome. Excerpts:
What do you think is the major contention between the executive and the legislature owing to the fact that the President has not been able to sign the 2016 budget into law?
I want to correct the impression that the budget is generating controversy because the President has not signed the budget into law. The truth of the matter is that there was never a time in the history of our democracy that the parliament will pass a budget and the president will immediately sign it. It has never happened that way. The President must first go through the document before putting his signature to paper. Besides, the President is not even the one to go through the budget. The various ministers and directors general of agencies and heads of parastatals of government will go through the documents before it gets back to the president with their observations and comments which will then inform Mr. President’s decision to sign or withhold his assent to the appropriation Act. Definitely, this process takes time but we are all getting impatient because of the economic crisis and huge expectations from the new government.
Again, people seem to be more conscious of the importance of budget to the states because a whole lot seemed to be waiting for the budget. Construction works are not going on but that would not be blamed on the absent of budget, it is because of the change from one government to another, and the new government wants to do some checks before they can go ahead with some existing projects and this is causing problem for Nigerian people. As a result of this crisis, we are getting impatient with due process; I think that is the problem. Therefore, what is happening to us is not unusual and it is not strange. The budget proposal came to the National Assembly without the input of lawmakers and the legislators have taken their time to go through the document, saw some strange proposals and made amendment where necessary and returned the document to the executive after passing it into law. We are now waiting for the endorsement of Mr. President. It is however, unfortunate to note that two days after the passage of the bill, people started shouting that the President has refused to sign the budget. I am not sure the President has personally said that he will not assent to the appropriation Act as passed by the National Assembly; I have also not heard him say so in any event. I believe that due process is just being followed but because of hardship and economic difficulties that we found ourselves, the public tend to blow up any little thing and that creates an impression that what is happening is unusual. The difference, if any, would be addressed soon. In the past, we have addressed differences like this without much ado but the factor responsible for the outcry is what I just told you. I believe that we are on course and we will deliver to the Nigerian people the dividends of democracy promised by APC led administration.
Is the position of the House of Reps to revisit the budget if there are gray areas consonant with extant laws on passage of appropriation bill?
It is absolutely in agreement with extant laws; we have the powers to revisit such issues. Man is not made for the law but the law is made for man and that is why there must be element of flexibility to accommodate unusual development otherwise, you will encumber the society with laws. So I believe it is possible, it is legal and it is practical for lawmakers to revisit issues and I think it is in the best interest of Nigerian people. If we want to say that we have passed the bill into law and no going back, to me that would be unnecessary rigidity which members of the society will consider to be arrogant. The Senate seems to be on a different page with you on this issue as they insist that the only way forward is supplementary appropriation.
Do you foresee internal wrangling in the parliament as a result of the foregoing?
There are internal mechanisms for resolving such differences; it was because this kind of scenario was envisaged that the mechanism was put in place in the first instance. When we disagree with the Upper Chamber on issues like this, we use to have a conference and if the conference could not reach a consensus at the end of the day, we would resort into voting if it becomes necessary and I think that we are matured and experienced enough to avoid controversy. But that is not to say that we cannot face challenges, we are not afraid of challenges but we would strife to avoid a situation that would compound the current economic hardship in the country.
As a strong advocate of Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) what do you think is withholding the passage of the bill?
In the first place, I think it was an error on the part of the originators of that bill even though I was part of the initiators to have lumped everything together in a single document. I don’t think it is the best, what is happening just now is that selfish interest, regional interest, business interest and all sort of motives have come in to encumber the process of passing that bill. For instance, some people believe that the deregulation of the downstream sector was a major policy element in PIB as opposed by government.
Then, if that is the case, if you are to deregulate, why do you still have to equalize?
These are two contradictory policies but there are some people who benefit from equalization and they insist that there must be equalization so that petroleum product will sale at the same rate everywhere in the country and yet we say we want to deregulate and leave prizing to market forces.
Is that not a serious contradiction?
Some people believe that this country must continue to spend money irrespective of the lack of prospect in Lake Chad Basin; we have been spending money there for many years. Some other interest however believe that we must continue to spend money there whether or not the likelihood of discovering oil there is strong or not but others believe that it should not be and that is a big issue. Few other interest believe that there should not be host community fund, they always argue that the Niger Delta people already have NDDC, Ministry of Niger Delta as well as Derivation Principle and as a result of that there should not be anything like host community fund. But people have forgotten that when you talk about host community fund, you are talking about a special fund that is set aside to address serious issue in communities that accommodate oil prospective activities. The same can apply to communities that accommodate coal, limestone, gold, and other mineral deposits. If we have said, let’s take out host community stuff blow it up a bit to accommodate more items, as it is presently in the PIB, it is specifically for oil producing communities.
Now if oil producing communities are entitled to some funds for whatever developmental purposes, why not host of other mineral resources?
These are the kind of interest some people feel that ‘we have solid minerals and they have oil why should it apply to only oil producing communities and not every communities that have mineral deposit.’ Others query why you have to spend money in Lake Chad Basin continuously and why not take that off. Again, even the government that proposed the bill was not serious about it because they deliberately slow down the pace of things. From what we are seeing in the public, even though we’ve seen that many years ago as major stakeholders in the oil and gas industry who had always been involved, many of the are manipulating the system. We saw the level of manipulation particularly in the downstream product supply and distribution are so manipulated so skewed that only few people are making huge underserved profits and because of the economic benefits that they derived from the manipulation, they do not want a truly deregulated industry; but they mischievously put it there. These are the things that make the passage of PIB very difficult. Don’t forget that the lawmakers are not from the moon or other planet, we are from these various communities and we represent those interests. So when someone comes here, you hear them sounding discordant tune and people think that such views represent the individual views of the lawmakers, no, they don’t represent their personal opinions. In most cases they are only expressing the position, interests and concerns of the communities and people that they represent. So that is a major issue.
What is then the way forward?
The way forward is to unbundled the document itself, not just unbundling NNPC because it is not all about NNPC but that bill should be separated. For instance, you look a fiscal issue, make that an Act, you go to the structure you make that another Act, that which concerns NNPC, let it be purely NNPC regulation and let that be separated. Should there be DPR alone covering both upstream and downstream?
Should PPPRA be there or should they be merged?
Do we still need PTDF, Economic Equalization Fund and all that? These are issues that can be discussed under the structure of oil and gas industry. What should be the nature of oil and gas industry, what should be the nature of NNPC and that should be different from fiscal matters like taxation and what have we. So by the time you break it down into parts, I think it would be easier to conquer the different motives that are currently delaying the pace of work.
The National Assembly has been accused of being insensitive and reckless in management of funds following a plan to purchase utility vehicles with outrageous prices, how valid is that?
Reckless and insensitive? No! We are rather frugal. The National Assembly is very frugal, we have managed our resources very well and we have applied resources in such a way that public interest is of concern to us. So I don’t think that there is a problem in the plan by National Assembly to purchase cars, however, whether we should buy car or not I think that a lot of people are not fair to us. Some of these noise makers out there use multiple cars. You have heads of agencies who do not contest election and are not representing anybody but merely appointed by some elected people, enjoying what you call monetization policy and in addition to that, they have multiple cars. Their children use official cars to school and you say that the lawmakers should not use car to work? I don’t think there is any sense in it as far as I am concerned. I happened to have worked both in private and public sector and I understand how thinks work, if I take a car loan for instance, I will pay back the entire car loan, it is therefore, not the business of the public to begin to dictate to me what to use my car loan for because I am going to pay back the loan myself. It is a loan and they too take loan, do we dictate to them what to do with their loan or how to spend it? I cannot use my money to buy a car and use it for public service. Operational vehicles must be provided by the organization and I don’t know if people are saying that if you are elected you are not entitled to operational vehicles? We should look at this issue carefully and critically before we begin to criticize. I was told that some people were at the gate yesterday shouting about car loans and I know the leaders of these groups, they use more exotic cars than the ones we are talking about. I challenge them to an open debate on this issue, we all know ourselves. Some of us were using better operational cars before we got to the Assembly and we are still entitled to car loan at the time. So I don’t think that it is buying or not buying cars for the legislators that will solve the problems of the country.